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A closer look at how football teams use play calls and audibles

Brian Chamberlain (left), who played on the offensive line at Northeastern for future NFL coaches Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin, said he’s been using the same code words that he used in college over the past 10 years as the head coach at Braintree High.Matthew J. Lee

At every competitive level of football, offensive linemen have a lot to remember.

That’s one reason to keep things simple when it comes to the language used to change protection schemes or otherwise audible at the line of scrimmage.

Play-calling and audibles have come under scrutiny this week in connection with the Duxbury High football program, which allegedly used Holocaust-related language and Jewish terms during its season opener against Plymouth North March 12. The Anti-Defamation League has called for an investigation.

Every program has a different system for calling checks and audibles. Some change their terminology every year, some use “dummy signals” to try to fool opponents, but few programs, if any, allow players to determine which signals they will use without the coaches being aware of them.


“I probably make 95 percent of [the calls],” said Barnstable coach Ross Jatkola, who played tight end at the University of Albany.

“If we’re making a weekly check, sometimes I’ll ask the kids for something they’re comfortable remembering. Usually it winds up being something like ‘wide or tight,’ or ‘left or right.’ We try to keep it as basic as possible.”

At the college level, Jatkola said, signals were basic because “we had a huge playbook and you have to use your toolbox to remember everything you need to commit to memory.”

Braintree coach Brian Chamberlain, who played offensive line at Northeastern in the 1990s, said he has been using the same code words that he used in college over the past 10 years at Braintree. The 1994 Northeastern staff, which included future NFL head coaches Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin, didn’t need to change the system much in terms of terminology.

“It’s best to stay consistent with what you’re running,” said Chamberlain. “I didn’t want to change [our calls]. It’s high school football; we’re not reinventing the wheel.”


In the case of Duxbury, which has won 12 straight Patriot League titles, the calls in question reportedly evolved over time, starting with terms related to Judaism such as “rabbi.”

The Duxbury program has a history of community service and has been praised by adversaries for its professionalism, which is why the news comes as a shock to many in the coaching community.

“Teenagers are going to make mistakes, repeatedly,” said Milton coach Steve Dembowski, the state coaches’ association representative on the MIAA football committee.

“There is so much language and detail in football. It’s 20 times more complicated than the game I played in high school.

“Kids do end up making their own calls, and they want to have a say in things. I’m really hoping this is some misunderstanding and the kids went off on their own to do this.”

At Old Rochester in Mattapoisett, second-year coach Bryce Guilbeault often uses players’ names to represent numbers (Tom Brady for 12, Julian Edelman for 11), which in turn represent play calls.

“We will let the kids name them sometimes,” he said. “If we’re running ‘dive,’ they might call it ‘scuba.’ I don’t really care what they call it is as long as they’re going to remember it and it’s appropriate.”

Zane Fyfe, who is in his sixth year as coach at Apponequet, has used in the past a traditional numbering system that designates formation, blocking scheme, and where the play is run.


In recent seasons, the Lakers have shifted to a no-huddle offense more frequently. As a result, they’ve implemented simpler, condensed language to describe plays.

The words used can be anything from an animal or a mascot to a mnemonic phrase or number that matches a wristband. Superhero names have been popular. For example, “Superman” was a vertical pass call, letting the receivers know to “fly” down the field while the offensive linemen “protect” the quarterback.

“It’s all about relating it to something they understand or can relate a play to,” Fyfe said. “However, we’ve never used or condoned any derogatory verbiage.”